It is almost universally agree that coworking is all about community. Coworking leaders, often called “community managers”, (as well as “curators”, and many other titles), have developed a considerable body of pragmatic knowledge about creating and sustaining a community of workers. (See my forthcoming ebook for more about community leadership practices.)
But what about the setting, the coworking space itself, the room filled with desks and other infrastructure?
The original concept of coworking was based on the availability of ubiquitous digital technology, which makes it possible to work from practically anywhere, including, say, McDonalds. Technologically, almost any space could be used for coworking, and a wide variety of spaces definitely have been set up as coworking operations.
On the other hand, a coworking space is, at bottom, nothing more than an office space. There is, of course, an immense body of knowledge about the design and operation workplaces. These concepts can be applied to coworking spaces as well, and many designers and architects have applied themselves to creating coworking spaces, indeed, to creating “optimal” coworking spaces.
How is this project going?
Some operators follow the contemporary school of thought that, in essence, “Buildings are Giant Computers”  In this vein, Josh Emig describes the huge coworking chain WeWork’s approach as
“We believe that people’s relationship to physical spaces is at the center of the WeWork experience. Thoughtful integration of technology can enhance this relationship.” 
One of the technologies they use are sensors that detect the presence and flow of people in the space . These may detect traffic and use, but WeWork would also like every worker to carry a “beacon”, which can track every action their workers take . They aspire to “Continuous Awareness” through “Spatial Analytics“.
This work is similar to other contemporary office buildings (e.g., The Edge), with the main difference being that the workers do not work for the operator of the space. (I.e., the coworkers at WeWork are not employees of WeWork.) This is a potentially important socio-political point: there is a psychological, legal, and political difference between my landlord tracking me and my employer tracking me.
WeWork is scarcely alone. Other designers are working along the same lines. The Connectors Society seeks to “scientifically measure” a coworking space, in order to “increase productivity” . The Connectors Society eschews tracking individuals, though, and only uses indirect measure.
All of these tracking techniques are potentially valuable for the operators of a building, allowing them to “optimize” usage and charges (and therefore profits), and to detect problems. But what does this do for the workers?
Sensors may enable fine grain charging, and efficient reservation systems, but it’s not clear that tracking workers helps them be more productive or happier.
What does make workers happy and productive is fruitful interaction with other workers. Sensors and tracking alone do little to encourage or sustain social interaction, though they may document patterns and diagnose problems (e.g., ).
Some coworking spaces (including WeWork) take another approach, projecting digital social networks into their (physical) space. This digital augmentation tracks worker’s interests and social connections, and attempts to foster new and better connections.
WeWork has been described as “a social network with office space”. The workers enter in and participate in a digital social network, which knows who is present at a given time. Workers may find help or collaboration in the room, or the system may engineer introductions .
Another variant is Seats2Meet, which has a “dashboard” which shows in real time who is present and what their skills and interests are . Seats2Meet lets workers sit for free and even offers free communal meals. Their idea is to maximize the “social capital” of the space, which is the interaction of the workers. Thus, the space is designed to bring people together, and to let everyone know what “capital” is available. This is, they say, “The Serendipity Machine” .
There are many variations on this theme, if not necessarily as well articulated as WeWork and Seats2Meet [6,7]. Almost every worker has a presence in digital social networks, which will include coworkers in a local coworking space. Many spaces have their own social media, wikis, blogs, chat groups, and so on.
I note that many conventional organizations are trying to implement similar digital social augmentation, projecting digital networks into their physical workplaces. This approach must deal with how to enforce the boundaries of the organization, which may limit collaborations with outsiders.
Is This Really Necessary?
The digital augmentations of physical space are interesting, but are they really useful? Do these efforts make working or coworking better for the workers, for the economy, or for the operators?
Bob’s perspective – My own background is in social science, and, after a life as a peasant employee, I identify with workers. Notably, I am not an architect or a building operator. From my own perspective I don’t really care about the space, I care about what people do in it. And I care about the workers, not the operators.
From this perspective, I would say that you don’t really need all this hi tech stuff to succeed. Any space can be a good workplace if you have the right workers and you behave the right ways. For example, “home coworking” seems to work fine for some workers, despite (or because of) taking place in an improvised space, with no fancy instrumentation (e.g., [4, 5, 11]).
In fact, I’d say you have to be careful that this kind of intense “optimization” does not become poisonous for the kind of “community” you want to foster. It is frequently reported that workers dislike and resist detailed monitoring of their activity, and coworkers have the freedom to abandon a workplace they dislike.
Most young workers use digital social media for collaboration and communication, and most independent coworkers find it natural to collaborate as part of digital communities. These collaborations may help workers be more productive (though I am not aware of any comparative studies).
However, there is some reason to think that coworking makes workers happy precisely because they interact face to face, not digitally. Especially for independent workers who work on line, human contact is especially rewarding. I.e., the coworking space is valuable for its non-digital community.
If this is true, then intensive digital augmentation may be counterproductive, distracting and diminishing the most valuable non-digital interaction time.
In the End, Is This Good For Workers?
Overall, these technological augmentations seem to be mostly for the benefit of the operator of the space, “optimizing” the usage and profits of the space. This is a legitimate motive, but not necessarily beneficial or even noticed by the workers in the space.
The benefits of tracking workers’ behavior is less clear for the workers. Fine grained “metering”, to charge for small units of usage, is likely to be distracting, if not degrading, and can only lead workers to self-ration whatever is charged for. Psychologically, this kind of bean counting is scarcely amenable to the spirit of sharing, collaboration, and creativity.
Social augmentation of the workplace is interesting sociotechnical experiment, and I’d love to see some in depth, long-term studies. How well does it work, who benefits, in what ways? Does using digital media to actively cultivate of social connections enhance the experience and results of coworkers. Does physical presence enhance digital networking?
My own intuition is that there will be substantial variability between workers, and also from time to time for the same worker. A given “social augmentation” may be welcome for some workers at times, and not at others. For that matter, connections and collaborations may not be symmetrical, if one coworker benefits or values more than another from the relationship.
I also wonder how well these technologies work over the long run. Much of the augmentation is focused on introducing strangers to each other—which happens once at the beginning of a relationship. How do collaborations continue over time? How do long term collaborators use digital technology?
As I said, I’d love to see some serious studies, especially on how long term coworkers use the space, digital, and face-to-face relationships.
- Daniel Davis, How Beacons Will Change Architecture, in wework blog. 2016. https://www.wework.com/blog/posts/how-beacons-will-change-architecture
- Josh Emig, Buildings are Giant Computers – Product Research at WeWork, in WeWork blog. 2016. https://www.wework.com/blog/posts/product-research-at-wework
- Maria Grusauskas, (2013) The Future of Coworking is Free and Augmented. http://www.shareable.net/blog/the-future-of-coworking-is-free-and-augmented
- Hoffice. Hoffice: Come and work at someone’s home. 2016, http://hoffice.nu/en/.
- Lori Kane, T. Borchardt, and B. de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
- Pagan Kennedy, How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity, in New York Times. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/how-to-cultivate-the-art-of-serendipity.html
- Melissa Mesku (2016) Quantifying serendipity. New Worker Magazine, http://newworker.co/mag/quantifying-serendipity-in-coworking/
- Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.
- Alex Pentland, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons From A New Science, New York, The Penguin Press, 2014.
- The connectors society (2016) How to Scientifically Measure a Coworking Space to Increase Productivity. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-scientifically-measure-a-coworking-space-to-increase-productivity
- Andreas Wolf, (2016) How to “Hoffice” with Other Freelancers for More Health, Happiness and Productivity. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-hoffice-with-other-freelancers-for-more-health-happiness-and-productivity
- Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf
What is Coworking?
Note: please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming early in 2017.